Interstate road network needs a new form of sustainable financing
Photo by Steven Lewis on Unsplash
Amid congressional battles over infrastructure finance legislation, the 48,000-mile Interstate Highway System (IHS) quietly reached a milestone on June 29. On this date in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Road Act authorizing the system and creating the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to finance its construction.
The IHS continues to serve as the backbone of the US economy, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), noting that nearly 75% of road freight is carried along its sidewalks. And although the IHS only accounts for 1% of total road kilometers, it manages 26% of the kilometers driven by vehicles.
Since its inception, the IHS has helped create many industries that have transformed the American economic landscape, including accommodation, fast food and restaurants, tourism, and convenience stores. Each year, these sectors contribute billions of dollars and millions of jobs to the economy.
The challenges of aging highways
But these business areas depend on a well-maintained, secure, and functioning interstate system. America’s population has doubled since 1956, and the IHS has seen the number of kilometers traveled by vehicle skyrocket by 422%. In addition, at 65, he has far exceeded his initial projections. According to the ARTBA:
- The nominal life of interstate pavements in the 1950s and 1960s was 20 years. More than a third of IHS miles exceed the 50+ mark.
- Almost a third of the bridges along the IHS (18,000 out of a total of 58,500) are in need of repair or replacement, and 57% of all bridges are in “fair” condition. The average age of bridge is 46 years old.
- Traffic jams on overwhelmed U.S. highways cost more than $ 9 billion in 2019, with truckers being delayed by nearly 149 million hours.
“Highways need an investment to stay healthy and vibrant for the future,” says Dr. Alison Premo Black, chief economist of ARTBA. “A renewed federal commitment to America’s transportation system is one of the best ways to preserve Eisenhower’s legacy and ensure that highways remain the engine of economic growth for decades to come. “American Association of Road and Transportation Builders
HTF needs funding
Debate continues on the federal bill to increase investment in infrastructure, with a significant portion to be devoted to roads and highways. But even if such legislation is passed, it would be a drop in the bucket to meet the long-term needs of the interstate system. Nor will it succeed in solving its most pressing problem: the funding mechanisms of the HTF. The HTF faced a long-term struggle to maintain its solvency, and only regular injections from the general fund stemmed the bleeding.
There is little argument that the main funding mechanism – fuel taxes – is no longer sufficient. Fuel tax rates have not been increased at the federal level since 1993; the kilometers traveled by vehicles have grown slowly; and the growing use of electric vehicles continues to eat away at fuel tax revenue.
Congress has always chosen to strike the ball when it comes to addressing the challenges facing the HTF. However, the expiration of the FAST law at the end of September offers another opportunity to identify and implement meaningful solutions. The question is whether lawmakers – already months after the start of negotiations on a larger infrastructure package – will have the courage to face yet another monumental legislative task … 2022 or even beyond.